Of all the mythologies, that of the Norse is second to the Greeks’ in terms of influence on western civilization, though in the last couple centuries Egyptian mythology has challenged it in the popularity rankings. The recent Marvel superhero movies have certainly helped with the Thor franchise, though the Valkyries and several of the gods and heroes have long captured public imagination thanks to the operas of Wagner. Before listing the gods, I should give a little background in how they are organized. There are two pantheons of gods: the Aesir and Vanir. There really isn’t too much of a difference between them, though the Aesir appear to be more prominent as in addition to ruling Asgard, they have the king-god Odin. According to myths, the Aesir and Vanir warred for a while before coming up with a treaty. Both Aesir and Vanir deities were worshipped by the Norse peoples. There are also deities outside of these two groups, more monster than man, such as the dragon Nidhogg and the serpent Jormungandr. The prophecy of Ragnarok claims that almost all of the gods will die in a a great final battle against the giants and a host of monsters, including Loki. This list may cover bits of German mythology, as the Germanic peoples virtually worshipped the same gods under different names.
A Vanir, Freyr is the son of sea god Njord and brother of Freyja (a love and fertility goddess who giants and monsters are constantly trying to force into marriage). Freyr and Freyja moved to Asgard following the ending of the Aesir-Vanir war to ensure peace. Freyr and Freyja are both beautiful gods, and both oversee fertility, as well as aspects of sexuality. Freyr himself is the god of male virility and good weather. Depictions of him often emphasize his phallus. He also owns a shining boar named Gullinbursti, who was literally fashioned by the dwarves using pig skin. Freyr once owned a magic sword that could fight on its own, but had to give it away. What brought this around was his love of the giantess Geror. He asked his servant Skirnir to get her on his behalf, but Skirnir demanded that he get the sword. Freyr agreed. This will come back to bite him later when he battles Surtur. Without his magic sword, he will fall before the fire giant.
Thanks to his association with agriculture and sexuality, Freyr became one of the most popular gods. He was even given rulership over Alfheim, land of the elves. Occasions which saw him receive sacrifices (often in the form of a boar) included weddings and harvests. There is evidence that he received much human sacrifice. In Uppsala, Sweden, worshippers used to throw slaves into a well. Whatever the form of worship, Freyr was obviously one of the most popular gods of his time.
Heimdall is the watchman of the gods, standing guard over Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. He is the son of nine mothers, however that’s supposed to work. He does not preside over any human affairs, but is nevertheless very important to the gods. He has remarkable abilities related to his guard duties. He can hear anything, and his sight is so good that it penetrates time. He is equipped with Gjallarhorn, a loud horn which he sounds whenever Asgard is in danger. Heimdall has the unenviable task of being on the lookout for the chaotic Loki, a feud which will reach a fatal climax at Ragnarok. Heimdall will sound his horn one last time as the giants invade Asgard. He and Loki will then kill each other at the end of the last battle.
Eostre is probably the least well-known deity on this list, though she did get a significant role in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. She is the goddess of spring and you can guess which holiday is named after her. There are some theories that Eostre is a Christian invention of Saint Bede, and that she is a representative of various dawn and spring goddesses. On the other hand, similar and ancient Germanic names and words among the Germanic names have been found to support her place as an ancient goddess. Eostre is associated with hares (hence the easter bunny). There are no stories about Eostre, but I do find her connection with a still-celebrated holiday fascinating.
A Vanir and father of Freyr and Freyja (through sister/wife Nerthus), Njord is a god of the sea, which naturally made him an important deity among the seafaring Vikings. The only significant myth about Njord is his marriage to the giantess Skadi. Thjazi, Skadi’s father, had just been killed after trying to steal the immortality-granting apples of Asgard. Not wanting to have another war on their hands, the gods agreed to meet some of Skadi’s demands for compensation. One of these was to give her a husband from among the gods, but she could only choose by looking at their feet. She chose the one with the finest feet, believing they must belong the handsome Baldur, but it turned out she had chosen Njord. This marriage proved to be difficult. Skadi’s home was in the snow-capped mountains (she doubles as a winter deity who enjoys skiing), so it was too cold for Njord. Likewise, Skadi couldn’t stand Njord’s seaside home on the beach. Thus they agreed to only spend half a year with each other. When he has been away from Skadi too long, Njord gets into a fitful state, resulting in sea storms.
Hel is the daughter of a bizarre affair between Loki and a giantess (more on that later). Her upper body is healthy, but below her waist it is shriveled rotted. He face is half-beautiful and half-ugly. This frightful figure rules Nilflheim, the realm of the dead. Hel displays indifference towards both humanity and the gods, simply presiding over the dead in a gloomy afterlife (by contrast, the fate of those dead heroes is the paradise of Valhalla, which could only have encouraged the historical Vikings to pursue constant warfare in order to avoid Hel). Hel has a great hound guarding her realm named Garm. Nilflheim itself is sometimes called Hel, leading many to believe that the goddess is merely a personification of a place, much like how Hades is used to describe the afterlife in the Bible.
Surtr is a giant associated with fire, thanks to the large flaming sword he owns. He resides in the realm of Muspelheim, the land of fire. Current people think of his Marvel comics version, which is a giant, horned fire demon, but more traditionally he is portrayed as just a giant with an affinity for fire. Surtr does not really do anything notable until Ragnarok, though the gods dread his coming throughout the myths. In the final battle, he will be the most destructive force, setting fire to everything, both the realms of the gods and earth. Out of this flame shall arise a new earth. The belief that the world would be consumed by fire may have originated thanks to the Icelandic people’s proximity to volcanoes There is no mention of Surtr getting his comeuppance after burning all of creation. I put him on this list because he of all the enemies of Asgard actually gets to succeed for a while.
One of the chief war gods among the Norse and Germanic peoples was Tyr (called Tiwaz by some). Tyr was very popular, and was even in a way worshipped by the Romans, who equated him with Mars, one of their primary gods. In addition to presiding over war, Tyr is also the god of honor and justice.
Tyr’s parentage varies from source to source. He is either the son of a giant or Odin himself. His most well known myth involves Fenrir. One of the children of Loki, Fenrir was a monstrous wolf who broke every bond the gods attempted to place on him. The gods wanted to bind him because they had grim prophecies about what the beast would do to them. Finally, the dwarves constructed a magical ribbon that could bind Fenrir, but the wolf refused to let the gods use it, since he suspected that the harmless-looking ribbon was a trick. He said he would agree if one of the gods placed his hand in his mouth as insurance. Tyr volunteered, knowing that Fenrir would surely bite him once he was trapped. He bravely placed his hand inside as the wolf was bound. Angered when he couldn’t break free, Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr will die in Ragnarok at the hands of another great dog, the hell hound Garm, though he will take his opponent out with him.
Tuesday is named after Tyr.
Odin, or Wotan (as he is known in Wagner’s Ring Cycle), is the all-father, the ruler of the Aesir. Odin is a god of knowledge and wisdom, and also of war. In many cultures, anyone killed in battle was considered a sacrifice to Odin. Thanks primarily to the Thor movies Odin is seen as a noble, caring ruler. This is far from the way the myths portray him. He is violent, manipulative, and like Zeus always has an eye out for attractive mortal women. Speaking of an eye, Odin only has one. Hearing that further knowledge could be gained from the well of Mimir, he set out to acquire it. Mimir said he could only drink the well’s water if he was willing to cut out an eye and cast it in. Odin was willing and got his knowledge. Odin has since been known by his alter ego of the One-Eyed Wanderer, wielding a large walking staff
Odin also gained wisdom by literally sacrificing himself to himself, hanging from a tree for nine days. He refused all help, suffering until at last the Germanic runes appeared to him, along with all their secrets and magic. Odin thus gained not just more wisdom and knowledge, but mastery over magic. Thus his worshippers would also hang people in sacrificial honor to Odin, sometimes volunteering themselves.
Odin is linked to several special animals. He has two ravens, Huginn and Muginn, who go about observing creation and reporting back to him so that he might have more knowledge. He has an eight-legged horse Sleipnir, actually the offspring of Loki and a horse. Odin also has charge over Valhalla. The Valkyries, winged female warriors on horses collect many of the war dead, bringing them to Valhalla. When Ragnarok comes, these soldiers, the Einherjar, will ride out with Odin to battle the force of evil. This will not save Odin, who will be devoured by Fenrir.
Wednesday is named after Odin (or more accurately the alternate name Woden).
Loki is the most complex character in Norse mythology. A trickster figure, he plays pranks on the gods, but just as often uses his wits to aid them. His trickery eventually morphs into full-fledged villainy. Loki is the son of the giant Laufey, but for some reason was accepted among the gods of Asgard. He would play many tricks on them, but would usually find a way to fix the problems he caused. He is something of a jester figure. He amused Skadi the giantess with physical humor in order to get her through her anger. He was able to point out the flaws of the other gods with painful accuracy in the Flyting of Loki. He also fathered three horrific figures with the giantess Angborda. These included the ravenous wolf Fenrir, the great serpent Jormungandr, and the goddess of the dead Hel.
One example is the case of the apples of Idun. Having a squabble with an eagle, Loki was lifted by the bird. He learned that he had been abducted by the shape-shifting giant Thjazi. He begged to be released. Thjazi agreed, but only as long as Loki would bring Idun, the tender of the apples that give the gods their immortality, to his home. Loki went to Idun and lured her away from Asgard by saying he had found fruits more marvelous than hers. Idun fell for this and found herself imprisoned by Thjazi. When the gods started to age, they learned the truth and threatened to kill Loki if he didn’t get Idun back. He turned into a bird and flew to Thjazi’s house, where he transformed Idun into a nut so he could carry her back. Thjazi gave chase in his eagle form, but was killed in a fire trap.
After another of his pranks, Loki learned that he was to be beheaded by Thor, per the terms of a deal he had made. But he cleverly pointed out that it was impossible to take off his head without taking part of his neck with him. Thor agreed, and then proceeded to sew his mouth shut. Loki ripped his mouth open, resulting in a crooked, ugly smile. Perhaps this incident played a major pat in his most infamous scheme. The god of light and beauty, Baldur, was immune to all harm, as his mother had made everything in creation swear never to kill him. Loki saw this as a challenge, and learned that the mistletoe had not sworn such an oath, since it was so small and harmless. He created a spear with mistletoe on its tip and tricked the blind god Hod into throwing it at Baldur. Baldur was killed. Frigg learned that Baldur would be resurrected if she could convince every creature to weep for him. However, a cruel giantess refused to weep. This giantess turned out to be Loki, who this time did not seek to undo the damage he caused.
Fed up with Loki, the other gods pursued him in a long-winded chase, finally catching him and chaining him inside a cave. They placed a venomous snake above him, which drip venom on him. Loki’s wife Sigyn eases his torments by catching the venom in a dish, but sometimes it overflows, brining Loki great pain. Loki will be freed in time for Ragnarok, joining an army of giants and monsters against Asgard. Loki and Heimdall will slay each other.
No Norse god is more well known than Thor, and I agree that he is the best. He is the god of thunder, lightning, and battle, and has the specific role of protecting mankind, making him far more altruistic than most other gods. He has a fiery temper, and the red hair and beard to match. His greatest weapon is Mjolnir, a great hammer crafted by dwarves. The hammer is so heavy and powerful that Thor needs to wear enchanted gloves and a belt. Thor also has a chariot pulled by two magical goats, who themselves can grow back after being killed and eaten.
Thor, along with Loki, has the lion’s share of surviving myths. One recounts his battle with the giant Hrungnir. Hrungnir lost a race with Odin and was afterwards was invited to dine at Asgard. He became drunk and began to insult and threaten the gods, even claiming to take the loveliest, Freyja and Sif, Thor’s wife, back home with him. Thor himself was gone, and was furious when he came to the hall to see his family threatened by the giant. He challenged Hrungnir to a duel, winning with a great blow to the head with Mjolnir.
Thor’s adventures could also be comical. These tales involve trips with Loki, god of mischief. Once Thor awoke to find Mjolnir missing. Loki learned that the giant Thrymr had stolen and buried it, and would only return it if Freyja was given to him as a wife. Loki informed Thor, who reluctantly agreed to disguise himself as Freyja by wearing a dress that veiled his features. Thrymr was ecstatic to have the lovely Freyja in his home, though he was baffled by how she was able to consume so much food and mead. Loki explained that she had not eaten in over a week. Thrymr than started to lift the veil for a kiss, but saw Thor’s fearsome red eyes. He backed away in startlement. Loki explained that the eyes were a result of too little sleep. Thrymr finally moved forward with the marriage, having Mjolnir brought in to sanctify it. Thor quickly took his hammer and, while still in his bridal dress, beat up the giants before speeding away.
Thor is fated to kill the great serpent Jormungandr, but he himself will die as it will poison him first. Thor almost averted this prophecy when he speared the serpent on a fishing trip. He could kill it and possibly gain survival past Ragnarok. However, his aide, the giant Hymir, was so terrified of the beast that he let it go. Thus Thor’s demise is ensured.
Thursday is named after Thor.
Five Other Notable Norse/Germanic Deities
Baldur: The god of light and beauty, Baldur was the most virtuous and beloved of the gods, and despite his death he will come back to life to lead the new gods after Ragnarok.
Freyja: The sister of Freyr, Freyja is primarily the goddess of love, sex, and fertility, though she also oversees aspects of war. She drives a chariot pulled by two large cats. Freyja is the most lovely Asgardian, and many antagonists have concocted schemes to force her into a marriage.
Frigg: Frigg is Odin’s wife and therefore queen of the Asgardians. Friday is named after her.
Hermod: This is the messenger of the gods, basically the Norse Hermes.
Sif: The wife of Thor, Sif is an agricultural goddess noted for her golden hair. Loki once shaved her head, a prank that saw him get battered by a furious Thor.
Cotterell, Arthur : Norse Mythology: The Myths and Legends of the Nordic Gods Annes Publishing Limited, 1997